The Unexpected Double Feature: Black Narcissus and La Grande Illusion

I often take in movies at the AFI Silver for all the obvious reasons; it’s a beautiful theater, has great audiences (always quiet, respectful and attentive) and I get to see countless classic movies on the big screen.   Sometimes, however, the unexpected occurs.  A little over a week ago I saw the Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger masterpiece Black Narcissus, a film I’d seen several times before but never saw it on the big screen until now (it was magnificent) and then, on Memorial Day, my wife and I took in a brand new 35mm print of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, Le Grande Illusion (it was equally magnificent).  What I didn’t realize until after watching the second film was that I’d seen a double feature and a pretty damn good one at that.

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One thing that always delights me with the cinema is how one scene, one moment or just a single shot can bring to mind another scene, moment or shot in another film.  And then the two ideas play off each other and lead to a better understanding (sometimes) of both movies.  So was the case with my unexpected double feature as ideas and themes from the two films led to a richer understanding and appreciation of both.

Black Narcissus revolves around a nun, Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, directed to start a convent in a clifftop building in the Himalayas that once served as a seraglio.  This provides a joke or two about the building once again housing a bunch of women, this time quite different women, but it’s also a comment on the sacred and the profane, on different walks of life and different choices made as well as a lack of choice, as the women of the seraglio most likely had no say whatsoever in their station.  It’s even alluded to, with the orphan girl, Kanchi,  played Jean Simmons, that certain girls get sent to do certain things, whether they want to or not.  Kanchi is trouble and so gets sent to the nuns to straighten her out.   Perhaps earlier, she would have been employed in a harem instead.

While at the convent, several nuns, including Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), become distant as the quiet isolation of their surroundings has the unintended effect of making them remember and dwell upon their past lives.   Sister Clodagh, especially, becomes lost in thoughts of her former life, where she was in love with a man that, alas, could not return to her the same feelings.  The situation is made worse when a British man, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a go-between with the nuns and the locals, ingratiates himself to Clodagh, who clearly becomes fond of him.  Unfortunately, another nun, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), becomes infatuated with him and believes that Clodagh stands between them.  This leads to a psychological struggle between the two culminating in the mental collapse of Sister Ruth.

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Le Grande Illusion is very different story indeed, on the surface.   Two French officers, Captain de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) and  Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down by Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) who immediately feels kinship with Boeldieu, as they share an aristocratic background.   Soon, the two French officers are shipped off to a prison camp and there join in the French officers already digging a tunnel, trying to escape.  The tunnel never works (they’re transferred to another camp before it can be used) but despite this being a prison camp, they are well treated and one prisoner in particular, Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy Jewish officer, shares his parcels of food and drink sent from home.

After being transferred to another camp, they meet up with Rauffenstein again, who runs the new camp and is happy for the opportunity to further develop his friendship with Boeldieu.   The two do, indeed, dine together and speak of their aristocratic backgrounds and military duty.  During an inspection of the prisoner’s quarters, Rauffenstein orders his men to leave Boeldieu’s area alone, stating that he will take his word that nothing forbidden is present there.  When Boeldieu asks why he doesn’t afford the same trust to the others, who are fine officers as well, Rauffenstein asks only, “A Maréchal? A Rosenthal?” as if the names alone prove that they are not on the same level as he and Boeldieu.  Later, when Boeldieu helps those two escape, Rauffenstein shoots Boeldieu, intending only to stop him, not to kill him.  When Boeldieu dies, he is heartbroken, seeing himself as the last of an aristocratic society that will flourish no more in the new postwar world.

The last third of the movie concerns Maréchal and Rosenthal making their way to freedom.  When Rosenthal sprains his ankle and slows them down, they fight and Maréchal uses anti-semitic slurs against him in anger.  Still, they struggle on together and meet up with a German woman, Elsa (Dita Parlo) willing to help them.

I’d seen both films before, more than once, but never so close together and never on the big screen.  The meditations on class and race play off of each other remarkably well.  In Black Narcissus, the Young General, a prince played by Sabu, becomes the object of affection for Kanchi and returns the sentiment, despite being from polar opposite ends of status.  In Le Grande Illusion, Boeldieu risks his life (and ultimately gives it) so that a working class officer and a Jewish officer, frowned upon by Rauffenstein, can escape to freedom, despite his aristocratic background.  Both the prince and Boeldieu give tacit nods to the end of an unfair system that places one above the other based on nothing more than birth or ethnicity.  And both acknowledge as much, as Boeldieu does explicitly to Rauffenstein when he laments on his death bed that Rauffenstein will now be alone.   The prince acknowledges it by his affection for Kanchi.   Their worlds are ending and a newer one, one that leaves them behind, is beginning.

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But beyond those worlds are race and religion, both playing central roles in the films.  Black Narcisuss does it rather slyly, in several places.  Mr. Dean notes that Sister Clodagh judges the Indians as inferior based on nothing more than her personal prejudices and thus delights in telling her that the holy man on the hill, a man she so dislikes she wants him physically moved, has more Ivy League degrees and speaks more languages than he can count.   Western accolades are the only way to impress upon Sister Clodagh the equality between the two.  In another scene, an older nun remarks that the Indians all look alike to her, oblivious to the fact that the nuns, in their rigidly conformist dress, are virtually indistinguishable from one another at any given moment.

Le Grande Illusion makes Lieutenant Rosenthal’s Jewish ancestry integral to his character.   He withstands insults and  injury but always gives, always helps.  His generosity and bravery is noted repeatedly and it is he who plays the translator between Maréchal and Elsa, bringing the two enemies together.

But both movies are also concerned with strength in the face of temptation.  Both films end with their major characters torn between the pull of their hearts and the necessity of their struggle.  Sister Clodagh and Maréchal want to stay where they are, she in the Himalayas with Mr. Dean and he in the farmhouse with Elsa but both must leave.  Both must tear themselves away from that which detours them from their path, a path they must take, not because of dictates but because of a personal need to know they can do it.  While only Maréchal explicitly says he will be back for what he is leaving behind, Clodagh says as much as the rains come,  accepting her fate but knowing that Mr. Dean will always be in her heart.

Beyond that, the movies also have a striking similarity in their actual styles of filmmaking.  After seeing Black Narcissus again, I was taken by how the story seems told less in a clear cut plot with one scene leading to another than in a collection of scenes, or vignettes, that add up to something much more than their self-contained drama.   On Memorial Day, just a little over a week later, I watched the same style again in Le Grande Illusion, as Renoir shows one scene after another, so individualized and self-contained, they don’t advance the story nearly as much as they advance the ideas and the emotions.   As a result, I was surprised again, with both, at how emotional their final moments were.  And how similarly they say goodbye to their leads.  In both cases, with Clodagh as well as Maréchal and Rothenthal, they leave the viewer by receding into nature.  Whether riding off into the rainy season of a long mountain road or haphazardly trudging through windswept snow, both movies send their characters off, away from the viewer, in a gentle perversion of the happy ending.  All the characters are free, following a path of their own choosing but their hearts are not content and their future is uncertain.  Neither movie provides a final answer on what becomes of them but, rather, a statement that no story has an ending, only a dividing point between one journey and the next.

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Both Black Narcissus and Le Grande Illusion stand as excellent meditations on that theme, and so many others.  Coming within ten years of each other, on opposite ends of the most destructive war in history, they speak volumes to class structures and race and while one, Le Grande Illusion, seemed to be looking forward to the struggle it saw coming, the other looked back on the lessons learned in that struggle and pointed towards humility in the face of it.   I never knew they so closely matched each other until I was treated to the most accidental, and rewarding, double feature I’ve seen in quite some time and one I highly recommend.

14 Responses The Unexpected Double Feature: Black Narcissus and La Grande Illusion
Posted By {theEye} : May 29, 2013 9:34 am

CLODAGH! CLODAGH! CLODAGH! CLODAGH!

Posted By {theEye} : May 29, 2013 9:34 am

CLODAGH! CLODAGH! CLODAGH! CLODAGH!

Posted By AL : May 29, 2013 6:11 pm

Powell & Renoir–wow…

Posted By AL : May 29, 2013 6:11 pm

Powell & Renoir–wow…

Posted By swac44 : May 30, 2013 11:11 am

Haven’t seen a Powell/Pressburger film in 35mm in years (and it likely won’t happen again any time soon as there is only one 35mm projector left in my city), and have only seen Black Narcissus on home video, aside from some clips in the documentary Visions of Light. Someday, maybe I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to Eastman House in Rochester…

Posted By swac44 : May 30, 2013 11:11 am

Haven’t seen a Powell/Pressburger film in 35mm in years (and it likely won’t happen again any time soon as there is only one 35mm projector left in my city), and have only seen Black Narcissus on home video, aside from some clips in the documentary Visions of Light. Someday, maybe I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to Eastman House in Rochester…

Posted By robbushblog : June 2, 2013 12:51 pm

I can’t imagine that I would ever be able to see either movie on a big screen in my town, much less in 35mm, even much less within the same week.

Another film with a similar storyteling style is one you might not consider at first, but The Hurt Locker has a similar style of telling vignettes as opposed to one overarching plot, and the lead character walks away from the camera at the end, and we are uncertain what fate awaits him.

Posted By robbushblog : June 2, 2013 12:51 pm

I can’t imagine that I would ever be able to see either movie on a big screen in my town, much less in 35mm, even much less within the same week.

Another film with a similar storyteling style is one you might not consider at first, but The Hurt Locker has a similar style of telling vignettes as opposed to one overarching plot, and the lead character walks away from the camera at the end, and we are uncertain what fate awaits him.

Posted By Commander Adams : June 4, 2013 8:26 pm

You can definitely see the visual and thematic influence of Black Narcissus on Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun.

Posted By Commander Adams : June 4, 2013 8:26 pm

You can definitely see the visual and thematic influence of Black Narcissus on Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 5, 2013 8:38 am

Rob, I would have never connected The Hurt Locker story telling in that way but you’re right. It is a very similar style.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 5, 2013 8:38 am

Rob, I would have never connected The Hurt Locker story telling in that way but you’re right. It is a very similar style.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 5, 2013 8:39 am

C. Adams, Scorsese, as you know, is a huge Powell/Pressburger fan (I mean, he works with Thelma Schoonmaker so I guess, how could he not be). I haven’t seen Kundun in years but I think I’d like to give it another look soon.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 5, 2013 8:39 am

C. Adams, Scorsese, as you know, is a huge Powell/Pressburger fan (I mean, he works with Thelma Schoonmaker so I guess, how could he not be). I haven’t seen Kundun in years but I think I’d like to give it another look soon.

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